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The City and the Writer: In Wellington, NZ with Chris Price

By Nathalie Handal

Author Photo: Robert Cross

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.                              
 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Wellington as you feel/see it?

When poet Lauris Edmond called Wellington the “world headquarters of the verb,” I don’t think she was referring to the politicians busy in “The Beehive,” as our parliament building is known, or the so-called “number 8 wire mentality” that tells us New Zealanders can do great things with limited resources. She was just making the best of the wind that roars through Cook Straight, knifes up from Antarctica, and buffets us around in ways that keep us all on edge, as do the occasional earth tremors that may herald the earthquake we should all be prepared for. The positive side of Wellington’s geography is that most things happen within a walkable radius downtown, so creative collisions don’t require the equivalent of a Large Hadron Collider, and people are constantly cooking up new artistic projects here.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Wellington has been good to me—I arrived nearly twenty-five years ago to live with someone I met here, and we are still together. The city has also offered me jobs that involve hanging around with books—first as a writers’ festival organizer, then as a creative writing teacher—and a lively literary community. I am tempted to say I don’t do heartbreak, but that would be tempting fate—it’s just that my last real heartbreak was a long time ago, and in Auckland. Don’t go breaking my heart now, Wellington!

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

It’s hard to keep secrets in a town this size. But it would be a shame to miss the Wellington Writers’ Walk, which requires keeping your eyes peeled for quotes from local writers set in concrete (and sometimes metal) in unexpected places around the waterfront. The most hidden quote is tucked away in a hole in Taranaki Wharf that hundreds of people walk by every day, and probably miss—it’s the lines “I live at the edge / of the universe / like everybody else,” from Bill Manhire’s poem “Milky Way Bar.” The fact that these words were chosen as a byline for New Zealand’s program as Country of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012 gives a clue to how we see ourselves—kind of marginalized, but still every bit the equal of anyone else out there. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

The first thing you see on arrival in Wellington is a sign on the airport terminal proclaiming the city The Middle of Middle Earth, and the terminal itself houses giant figures from The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, so overseas visitors could be forgiven for thinking Wellington’s most significant writer is J.R.R. Tolkien. As a small country, NZ is peculiarly susceptible to these rebranding exercises for the tourist market, but those who dodge Gandalf and Gollum will find a city jam-packed with terrific writers of all genres. I will confine myself to the poets, or this answer is going to get out of control.

There’s no question you should start with Bill Manhire, whose compressed yet airy, mysterious and often playful poems have travelled internationally, but still need to be discovered by more readers. Bill is also having a late phase as our answer to Leonard Cohen, writing lyrics for jazz pianist Norman Meehan and vocalist Hannah Griffin.  As a brilliant and generous teacher of creative writing he has also nourished a whole ecosystem of New Zealand writers. There are so many other Wellington poets worth reading that I can list just a few: try James Brown, Jenny Bornholdt, Geoff Cochrane, Kate Camp, Hinemoana Baker, Ashleigh Young, and the Paris-based poet Andrew Johnston, for starters. Or just visit the online anthology Best New Zealand Poems for a national sampler, then seek out the books, because one poem isn’t enough to do any poet justice.

Is there a place here you return to often?

From where I sit at home or at work, Wellington is all hills and harbour, so I am constantly drawn back to the edge of the sea. I grew up further north, where the temperature is kinder to swimmers, but I try to get into the ocean as much as possible—it makes me euphoric, awake, and relaxed all at once. Half an hour north of the city centre, Paekakariki marks the start of miles of uninterrupted sand watched over by the brooding razorback of Kāpiti Island, once the HQ of the most feared Māori chief, Te Rauparaha. Just five minutes from my house, though, is Petone, an area inhabited by various Māori tribes in succession, then the site of the first European settlement in Wellington, and now a working-class suburb in the process of gentrification, which means you can get a good flat white [a type of local coffee] there (Wellingtonians are coffee aficionados who like to believe the city has the best coffee in the world, not just in New Zealand). But I mainly go for the beach. In a country of great beaches, it’s far from the best: it’s shallow, and debris from the Hutt River tends to wash up there, but it’s where I go when I need to walk (or swim) off the hours at the desk. A section is reserved for dog-walkers, and if it’s too cold or windy to swim, then watching the joy of dogs at the beach is a quick way to reconnect with my own. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know? 

The birthplace of short-story writer Katherine Mansfield is probably the most visited literary site in Wellington. In the early twentieth century, when the whole country didn’t offer enough scope for her talent and amibiton, Mansfield was determined to achieve exit velocity from the city as fast as possible. It would be decades before New Zealand found a literary culture to call its own, and traces of the colonial cringe that dictates only writers published in London or New York are worth reading are still with us. After reading some of the superb stories KM wrote about her hometown while living in France and England (“Prelude,” “At the Bay,” “The Garden Party”), take a short ferry ride from downtown Wellington across to Day’s Bay, where some of them were set.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Wellington is an empire-inscribed city, covered with the names of early colonizers, some more infamous than admired. The story of Pukeahu, an area of Wellington now called Mt. Cook after explorer Captain James Cook, fascinates me because it bears the scars of both the colonial enterprise (a prison, a military barracks, a police station, even a Transit of Venus observatory), and the faultline the city straddles (two mid-nineteenth century earthquakes raised the land around the harbour). What seduces me is this: the Waitangi stream that flowed from the valley to the east of Pukeahu into the sea was long ago piped through a culvert and built over, but an artist who has done research into the area told me that when landscape architects making a new waterfront park and wetland next to our national museum uncovered the stream a few years back, the eels that were once a food source for Māori were still living in the culvert. I haven’t been able to verify that fact, but I’d like it to be true. The damage wrought by human habitation in general and colonialism in particular can seem irreversible, but those eels biding their time under the city represent hope.

Where does passion live here?

For me, it’s in the arts and the sciences, which sometimes hold hands or waltz with one another. It also lives in Peter Jackson’s film studios and Weta Workshop. Some might say that it lives in the stadium when the All Blacks are playing a rugby match there.

What is the title of one of your works about Wellington and what inspired it exactly?

My earliest memory is walking down the aisle of a plane as a small child on the way from England to New Zealand with my family in the 1960s, and I sometimes think my imagination never quite landed here, but lives somewhere in midair still. It’s only very recently—as a result of participating in a poetry exchange with three German poets based around the Transit of Venus, the event which (indirectly) led Captain Cook to New Zealand in 1769—that I have begun to spill some ink into local waters. A poem called “The Audition” imagines trying out for the role of New Zealander, but having the wrong accent, which I did when I first went to school here: “I auditioned for a band called the High Rising Terminals but / I wasn’t born in this country.” Linguists call the New Zealand habit of ending a sentence with a rising inflection—so it sounds like a question rather than a statement?—a high-rising terminal, but it would make a great band name too.

There are excellent poems about the city, however, many of them collected in an extraordinarily good anthology called Big Weather (see comments on the wind, above).  

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Wellington does an outside exist?”

Wellington is not so big that it can claim to be a world unto itself, but it can be easy to forget or neglect the outside world if you get most of your information from the local newspapers or the television news. Our island status near the bottom of the southern hemisphere can make us a little prone to complacency or blinders when it comes to what’s beyond—but it also creates the need to achieve exit velocity in many of our young people, not just the young and hungry Katherine Mansfields of the twenty-first century. Thankfully, they no longer have to stay away—those who choose to return, or stay, can have a creative life in Wellington undreamt of in Mansfield’s day.

Chris Price’s latest collection Beside Herself, was published March 2016. In 2002, she was awarded the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Prize for Husk. The reviewer for the NZ Herald wrote that “with her first collection she establishes herself as a major and distinctive poetic talent. Love and lust, science and technology, language and literature—all get the same alluring treatment.” In 2006, she contributed a long verse essay to the art-science collaboration Are Angels OK?, and published the playful and genre-busting, Brief Lives, a hybrid work of essay, biography, fiction, and poetry that was short-listed for the New Zealand Book Awards. Her poetry collection The Blind Singer was published in 2009, and she received the Mansfield Fellowship in 2011. The following year she was among three New Zealand and three German poets who participated in the Transit of Venus Poetry Exchange, which culminated in a performances at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, and a bilingual book, Transit of Venus / Venustransit (Victoria University Press, 2016). Price is on the faculty of NZ’s International Institute of Modern Letters, a creative writing program at Victoria University of Wellington, and is the series editor of the online anthology Best New Zealand Poems.

Published Apr 13, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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